Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 12
13 September 1999

Catherine Lovatt E N V I R O N M E N T:
An der schoenen, braunen Donau
Romania's not-so-blue Danube

Catherine Lovatt

One of the main areas of enivornmental concern in Central and Eastern Europe is Danube pollution. Seventeen countries with 165 million people all pour pollution into the Danube either directly or via five major tributaries. All seventeen countries contribute to this environmental crisis, but Romania is a worse offender than most. Although the Romanian government does want to clean up its bad track record on pollution, economic and political conditions are not conducive to success.

The Danube was once a thriving ecosystem and a centre of human daily life. It provided a communication and transportation system as well as food and employment. Today, it attracts raw sewage from cities, chemicals from agricultural run-off, waste from factories and bilge oil from ships. Much of this pollution is later washed up on coastal beaches, spreading disease and making them unsafe for residents and tourists alike. Chemicals in the water have killed much of the marine life and destroyed the Danube's fishing industry.

Danube pollution has always been of great concern to international environmental agencies; the collapse of Communism in 1989 opened up the floodgates of research. Scientists and environmentalists could, at last, study the full extent of the pollution.

Romania has been accused of being one of the most prolific polluters of the Danube. Throughout the Communist era, Romanian industrial policy disregarded environmental safeguards, and waste from heavy industry simply floated over to Bulgaria.

In Romania, national environmental groups seem to have made little impact in reducing pollution. Reasons for this inefficacy include there being little information about environmental groups and what they aim to achieve. There is a lack of advertising on their part, a lack of organisation and a lack of funds. Ecological parties, however, have gained seats in the Romanian Parliament, indicating that environmental issues are of concern to a significant number of the general population.

On top of pollution as a hangover from Communist-era industialisation, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia has also recently aroused concerns that the Danube maybe in peril as an ecosystem. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) has been working in Yugoslavia to assess the areas which could have been polluted by the air strikes. The Danube is clearly one such area.

The UNEP's main worries are over chemical spills from bombed factories. In July, scientists visited potential "hot spots" around the Novi Sad oil refinery and the Pancevo industrial car factory in Kragujevac where NATO bombing was intense.

In addition, under the auspices of UNEP and the Austrian-based International Commission for the Protection of the Danube River, experts from Hungary, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Romania, Russia, Slovakia and Sweden visited the Iron Gates Dam on the Yugoslav-Romanian border. They are looking for organic matter and toxic waste carried down the Danube and deposited in sediments in the Djerdap Reservoir to determine the environmental damage caused by NATO air strikes.

The effects of the Kosovo conflict on the Yugoslav environment have been devastating. An international environmental team from the FOCUS group have reported that Yugoslavia is faced with an ecological disaster unless urgent measures are taken to alleviate the areas worst affected by the bombing. (for more on the environmental damage of the NATO bombing, see Sam Vaknin's article in CER 5)

However, it is not only Yugoslavia that has suffered. Surrounding countries are also experiencing environmental degradation as a result of the NATO action. The increased use of aircraft in the region has raised air and noise pollution levels. The blocking of the Danube with bombed bridges has caused a backlog of boats that are unable to move. This has affected the Danube, which is used for drinking water in downstream Romania and Bulgaria. UNEP's Balkan Task Force are examining the waters to discover if there is any risk to public health.

International environmental organisations such as UNEP, FOCUS and Friends of the Earth are keen to improve the Danube environment. Renowned for their awareness and action over the environment, the Danish and Swedish governments have researched toxic emissions from factories and used equipment developed to protect their own environments to benefit those of Central and Eastern Europe. Bordering countries have also initiated long-term research programmes to restore the health of the river. The realisation has set in that a healthy Danube is not just an environmental issue but a means of making money. Numerous business opportunities are available in shipping, ports, energy, construction, tourism, agriculture and fisheries.

The 1991 Romanian Constitution states that Romanians have a right to a healthy environment. In the mid-1990s, a new environmental law entitled the public to be informed of environmental matters and allowed public participation in recorded discussions about the future of their environment. The project was to be overseen by the Central Environment Authority (CEA), who were to publicise issues of import and encourage public debate. The success of this organisation remains to be seen, but the limited information thus far available suggests the CEA is blighted with problems.

The Romanian government have attempted to bring environmental issues to light; however, any solution to the environmental problems in and around the Danube would require sustained investment of billions of dollars. At present, Romania is unable to secure a guarantee of such investment.

Romania could act on its own, of course, but in order to reduce pollution in the Danube, Romania would have to close several major factories, in the process further raising unemployment in an already deteriorating economy. Unfortunately, Romania is not the only country economically unable to protect the Danube watershed. Other main polluters, such as Bulgaria, Hungary and Slovakia are facing a similar situation.

The Kosovo conflict has reintroduced the problem of Danube pollution to large, international organisations capable of funding multi-lateral environmental programmes. The proposed Stability Pact aims to rejuvenate economies and alleviate the economic uncertainty which makes industrial short-cuts compromising the environment seem inevitable.

In Romania, environmental protection and rehabilitation is part of the process for improving the economy and attracting investors. The Romanian action plan includes: monitoring the ecological consequences of the Yugoslav conflict on the Danube River, Danube Delta and the Black Sea; environmental reconstruction of some areas of the lower Danube ecological system in order to restore fishing potential, improve the quality of the water, and increase the tourism and economic value of the whole Danube area; rehabilitation and modernisation of the water and sewage networks; and implementation of the European programme "Green Danube." This programme is not only a positive economic step but could help to improve the environment of the whole Danube region.

Catherine Lovatt, 13 September 1999

Useful Links:

United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)


Friends of the Earth

Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs document Romania and the Stability Pact




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